Former Interior Secretaries Grilled On Capitol Hill

Bush-era Interior Secretaries Gale Norton and Dirk Kempthorne appeared before Congress on Tuesday, defending the Bush administration against Democrats' charges that its policies led to the Deepwater Horizon blowout three months ago.

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Here in Washington, there was more partisan finger-pointing as the current and two former Interior secretaries testified before a House panel.

NPR's Brian Naylor has our report.

BRIAN NAYLOR: In the eyes of Democrats, the seeds for the Deepwater Horizon blowout were planted two weeks after President George W. Bush took office. That's when Vice President Cheney was asked to chair an energy taskforce. House Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats say President Bush then issued an executive order to, quote, "expedite projects that will increase the production of energy."

The result, according to a committee memorandum: regulatory corners were cut. For instance, the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service ignored warnings that it should require offshore wells use multiple blowout preventers to prevent the type of accident that occurred at the Macondo well last April 20th. It led to this heated exchange between Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey and Gale Norton, who was the Bush administration's first Interior secretary.

Representative EDWARD MARKEY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Madam Secretary, there was a deregulatory ticking time bomb that was set while you were secretary that has now exploded in terms of this blowout preventer and other devices not having been properly regulated. Do you believe, in retrospect, it was a mistake to create those exemptions?

Ms. GALE NORTON (Former Secretary of the Interior; Counsel, Dutch Royal Shell): I haven't seen anything that would indicate that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the Deepwater Horizon decisions that were made by BP and what this analysis is that you're talking about.

NAYLOR: Norton, who is now counsel for the Dutch Royal Shell oil company, said up until three months ago, offshore drilling regulations were based on what she called a past history of success.

Ms. NORTON: Since 1980, the largest spill from a blowout in federal waters was only 800 barrels. All of the plans under both the Republican and Democratic administrations were adopted against this backdrop of safety.

NAYLOR: And to some extent, Democrats agreed. Committee Chairman Henry Waxman of California.

Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California; Chairman, House Energy and Commerce Committee): The Department of Interior under both President Bush and President Obama made serious mistakes. The cop on the beat was off duty for nearly a decade, and this gave rise to a dangerous culture of permissiveness.

NAYLOR: For his part, former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who succeeded Norton, said the Bush administration raised the royalty rate the government charged oil companies, increasing the amount of money the government collected by 50 percent.

Mr. DIRK KEMPTHORNE (Former Secretary of the Interior): While I was secretary of the Interior, not once, but twice increased royalty rates that companies paid for energy produced from deepwater offshore leases.

NAYLOR: Republicans criticized the Obama administration for the six-month moratorium the administration has now imposed on deepwater drilling in the Gulf. They pointed to reports that some drilling companies were already pulling their rigs and moving them to other countries. Former Secretary Norton used an aircraft analogy.

Ms. NORTON: You don't ground all of the airplanes because there was one problem. The important thing is to address the issues, not send the drilling rigs overseas where they may not return for many years and not send the jobs to other countries.

NAYLOR: Later in the day, current Interior Secretary Ken Salazar defended the moratorium, calling it a pause he said would remain in place until he was convinced drilling could proceed safely. He admitted, though, the MMS - which is becoming the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management - was still relying on the oil companies themselves to inspect their rigs.

Secretary KEN SALAZAR (Department of the Interior): And that's part of the change that I believe needs to be made, that it ought not to be a circumstance where, essentially, an inspector is taking the word of the company relative to the adequacy of a blowout preventer.

NAYLOR: Salazar said he's seeking to increase the number of offshore oil rig inspectors - now about 60 - to more than 400. But it would take several years and money that he and Congressional appropriators are still trying to find.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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